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Not even basic decisions escape scrutiny around the oil terminal in Valdez anymore.
Like a lot of companies in the suffering oil business, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is laying off employees, among them five emergency oil spill workers in Valdez.
Alyeska will have to explain itself, not to government regulators but to a group of Sound residents - those that would be affected most by an oil spill: the fishermen, tour operators and others who would be least likely to sympathize with Alyeska's budget crunch or anything that compromises shipping safety in Prince William Sound.
The group, known as the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or RCAC, is an experiment: a group of local citizens funded by industry charged with overseeing and improving industrial activities - in this case, shipping oil.
Ten years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill created the political climate in which RCAC was born, meetings between the citizen panel and the oil industry are spiked with criticism. Disputes continue over how RCAC spends its money. Alyeska charges the group lacks leadership. Last fall, the tanker companies uniformly blasted the concept behind citizen oversight panels. Suspicion reigns.
RCAC members say they are just doing their job, battling complacency in an industry that cannot afford to be complacent.
When it comes to watching over the oil industry, conflict seems to get results, said George Busenberg, a researcher who wrote a doctorate thesis on citizen oversight panels, including the one in Prince William Sound.
"I'd say it's extremely successful," he said.
In the years since the spill, all sides - Alyeska, the tanker operators, the Coast Guard and the state - agree that RCAC has been successful in improving safety in the Sound.
Stan Stephens, a longtime Valdez resident and the president of RCAC, says his stomach still knots when he thinks of the early morning trip through the drizzle to the side of grounded Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989.
What became clear in the days that followed was not only the industry's lack of preparation but also the role that residents could play in spill prevention. Fishermen in Cordova watched the slick edge toward a salmon hatchery. When Exxon rebuffed their offers of assistence and failed to move on its own, the fishermen organized their own effort and saved the hatchery anyway with a shield of floating logs.
Several weeks later, a group of Sound residents, many of them Cordova fishermen, met with Alyeska and shipping company officials at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. They demanded a say in the cleanup and a place at the table in the future to oversee oil shipping.
"They couldn't say no. Not with the mess they had on their hands," said Rick Steiner, a biologist who lived in Cordova at the time.
As the cleanup slogged ahead, the group advised Exxon and Alyeska on the needs and concerns of the locals. The concept of a permanent group took root and the next year became law in the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.
RCAC is a 19-member council of representatives from 12 local governments around the Sound and from industries such as fishing, tourism and aquaculture. In addition to RCAC, the law created a similar organization for Cook Inlet.
RCAC is unusual in that it gets funding directly from the industry it monitors, a financing scheme shared only with the chemical industry. RCAC has no power to fine, no authority to change regulations, no credibility beyond the logic of their arguments or power of their research.
"Their resources allow them to study issues in-depth. They've built up their legitimacy by doing good work, making good suggestions," said Busenberg.
In the charged atmosphere after the spill, cooperation was difficult. In December 1991, fearing council members would be corrupted by contact with industry officials, Stephens called for a council policy banning informal meetings between industry and RCAC members.
RCAC never adopted the policy, but the dispute drew media attention, as did a debate between Alyeska and RCAC over vapor emissions from the tanker terminal. RCAC issued a report that said the terminal released massive emissions into Valdez. Alyeska's study found the release much smaller, a claim that prompted RCAC to call the Alyeska study rigged.
"People nearly came to blows over that," Stephens recalled.
Ultimately, new Environmental Protection Agency regulations required Alyeska to install vapor controls, but the experience changed the way RCAC operated.
"We learned that conflict doesn't work. We had to find a way to work with the industry," Stephens said.
In a 1995 agreement, RCAC and Alyeska promised to inform each other about their activities.
In a ground-breaking study that year that examined the best way to prevent spills, RCAC and industry scientists worked together, not apart. When RCAC proposed to study fire safety, Arco Marine parked a tanker in Port Valdez for a symposium.
But passion remains part of the relationship between the groups. At a meeting last June, several council members said they felt the industry could never be trusted, according to Alyeska. Alyeska president Bob Malone said meetings between the board and Alyeska can become forums for personal agendas rather than constructive work on safety.
Both sides agree that conflict is inherent and potentially good. For example, a 1993 study of shipping by RCAC and other interested groups revealed the need for changes in shipping and new, more powerful tugs. The Coast Guard agreed to the shipping changes, but the industry balked at buying the vessels. RCAC continued to press for the tugs. Once on a flight from Prudhoe Bay, Stephens spent almost two hours badgering Malone.
"I was trapped in the center aisle. There was nowhere for me to go," Malone said. More studies, more debate followed. Finally, at Gov. Tony Knowles' urging, Alyeska contracted for two new tractor tugs in 1997 at a cost of $30 million.
"Is there still tension between us? Yes. I hope it never goes away," Malone said.
Conflict and questions continue between the groups.
RCAC has serious doubts about whether chemicals are a safe way to disperse a spill. While industry also has reservations, it wants testing and wants dispersants to be part of a spill response plan.
RCAC also wants to expand beyond marine safety and spill response. Last summer RCAC paid for a review of spill plans for the pipeline in Copper River Valley and Valdez, arguing that spilled oil in a drainage amounts to oil in the Sound. Alyeska challenged the council's right to oversee the pipeline and threatened to sue if the group used oil industry money. RCAC got other grants for the professional review.
RCAC also received a grant to study whether non-native species may be entering the Sound through discharged tanker ballast water. "That might be stretching our mandate a little bit," Stephens acknowledged.
In several ways, RCAC remains undefined. In a 1996 self-assessment, the council said that 19 board members are too many. Alyeska wants to cut RCAC's budget, something Stephens agrees should be looked at.
The Coast Guard is evaluating whether the citizen advisory council concept, set up as an experiment, should be applied to other ports. When the Coast Guard took public comment on the Sound RCAC's annual re-certification, the tanker companies blasted the group.
Exxon faulted RCAC members for taking positions adversarial to the industry. In a letter to the Coast Guard, Arco Marine recommended that membership in future councils be limited to representatives of local governments. Further, those government should help fund the group. BP complained about RCACs objections to using chemical dispersants on oil.
"The unique history of one port should not be assumed as a model for all other U.S. ports." wrote Hersh Kohut, president of Arco Marine.
Responding to the criticism, the Coast Guard backed RCAC and re-certified the group in January.
"These companies are threatened by a well-funded, professional oversight group," said Steiner, the biologist. "They're trying to destroy the capability of future RCACs."
Reporter Ben Spiess can be reached at email@example.com.